Friday, August 20, 2010

Mies Van Der Rohe, German Classicist

I was walking around midtown last week after running a brief errand, and I stopped by the Seagram Building, as I usually do when I visit that end of town.
The Seagram was completed the year I was born, and it remains, in my opinion, the Parthenon of glass and steel corporate skyscrapers. I use the word Parthenon deliberately.

As Mies Van Der Rohe recedes into time and history, he looks less to me like the Arch-Modernist Secretary for Ideological Purity of the Revolution (a role he made for himself), and more like an old time German Neo-Classicist like Karl Friedrich Schinkel or Leo Von Klenze.

I must confess to a fondness for his architecture precisely because it is so classical in its exacting sense of measure and proportion, its very centered and focused compositions, and in its use of fine materials. Where Mies can be faulted was his abstracting of the old classical demand for rightness of proportion. The Greeks, who invented that form language, began with the human body. What looks and feels right in architecture is analogous to what looks and feels right in our own bodies. Mies forgot that origin, as did a lot of earlier German Neo-Classicists so busy with their calipers trying to figure out Polykleitos' and Vitruvius' systems of proportion. The geometry and the proportional systems seemed so beautiful in themselves that the flawed human animal would just have to bend to adjust to living in such perfect spaces.

The corporate world loved Mies' architecture because it was so suavely beautiful, had no political or religious content, and it was so cheap to build (at least his imitators were cheap to build; the Seagram Building remains the most expensive skyscraper ever built with cladding made of cast bronze).

The Seagram Building on Park Avenue and 52nd Street, designed by Mies Van Der Rohe and completed in 1957.

The glass and steel curtain wall of the Seagram Building on all 4 sides is clad in cast bronze. Mies was the son of a stonemason, and had a craftsman's sense of exact proportion and material that did not always agree with industrial processes. When the developers complained about the expense of cladding an entire building in bronze, Mies refused to yield and the money was spent. There is expensive and beautiful material beautifully used throughout the building; travertine marble, green marble, grey granite, etc.

Main entrance to the Seagram Building facing Park Avnenue.

The Seagram Building has no gimmicks or spectacles. It's a very simple straightforward design. The lobby is a glass box with the main support piers of the building forming a peristyle around the ground floor. Inside are four elevator shafts clad in travertine marble and nothing more. It is so plain, and yet so beautifully designed and proportioned. It remains one of the most beautiful lobbies in New York, though definitely not one of the more spectacular.

Mies designed an even more austere and classical building for Berlin's National Gallery. The bulk of the Gallery sits in a granite box that forms a kind of podium for the glass and steel main entrance hall on the top.

The entrance pavilion of the National Gallery in Berlin with an Alexander Calder Sculpture.

The National Gallery at night

The entrance pavilion with Barnett Newman's Broken Obelisk.

The National Gallery is an even more explicitly classical building, a columned temple of steel and glass sitting on top of a podium with a cryptoporticus housing the bulk of the museum's collection.
Mies was so demanding and absolute about the rightness of the proportions of the building that he refused to design an underground extension to the building. It would have been invisible from the surface, but Mies refused to go outside his design perimeters, even underground.

Mies designed this building with another famous Berlin museum building in mind, Schinkel's Altes Museum completed in 1830 to house the King of Prussia's collection of antiquities, the first museum built on Berlin's "Museum Island."

Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Altes Museum, Berlin, 1823 - 1830. Behind the colonnade, there was once an enormous mural painted by Peter Cornelius. Most of the building that we see today was rebuilt after World War II.

This is a very fine building, but Mies was not the only architect to admire it. It was also a favorite of Albert Speer (and of Speer's employer, Adolph Hitler). That knowledge will forever spoil our view of this building.
Speer would take Schinkel's repetitions and monumentality and inflate them all out of proportion.
Mies appreciated Schinkel's very exacting classical proportions and understood that they were integral to the success of the design of the museum. He made his own version of Schinkel's grand public building in sheet glass and steel.

Mies is very out of fashion today. If anything, so much of current architecture is a reaction against his long domination.
Sadly, much of that opprobrium is richly deserved. Mies was an ideologue (as were his German Neo-Classical predecessors) with clear and strict ideas about what was "correct" in architecture. His vision about what was "correct" in architecture was very abstract and even anti-humane sometimes. He had a very Hegelian concept of History as the realization of Idea into Form. He believed that the architect was the passive vessel through which History spoke. He had a very reductivist view of form declaring that "form follows function." All else, including historical meaning and imaginative engagement by the people who live in and around the building, was just so much extraneous ornament, a "noodle." He had the powerful backing of everything from academia to the international corporate plutocracy. Small wonder that there is such a ferocious backlash against him.

And yet, in this age of celebrity architects with huge egos, Mies' buildings seem very unfussy and understated. In an age where so much architecture looks like a giant game of Jenga, where chaos theory long ago put Vitruvius on a back shelf in the library stacks, Mies' buildings seem so clear and focused, if very abstract. So much current architecture holds the surrounding historical context in contempt even more than Mies ever did. Mies' buildings are hard to love, in the way we might love the Chrysler Building or the local courthouse (and that is a big flaw in his work in my opinion), but they are easy to admire.

1 comment:

JCF said...

Is it the Seagram Building that had/has Mark Rothko paintings in the lobby? (I'm remembering---misremembering, more likely---a Simon Schama art documentary on PBS from a couple of years ago. "The Power of Art" I think it was called? I'm sure I remember the Seagram Bldg being in it somehow...)

Really not a fan of the Modern . . . but even the ugliest buildings get much more interesting, you when you know their background/context. Thanks, Doug.